DETROIT — About half the customers who take their vehicles to franchised car dealerships for service are women, but the odds of their being greeted by a female service adviser are only 1 in 5.
The chances that a female technician will work on their car or truck are far slimmer — a little better than 1 in 100.
The minuscule number of female techs isn't surprising, given that historically few girls or young women have been steered toward auto repair. Since women make up nearly half the U.S. work force, they represent a largely untapped pool of potential techs.
Most dealers are scrambling just to find men to work as techs, let alone women. But they may be missing an opportunity by not proactively trying to recruit and retain more young women to replace older technicians who are retiring or moving to other jobs, industry experts say.
According to the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) 2019 Dealership Workforce Study, women hold 20% of service adviser jobs, up about a percentage point since 2016. Just 1.3% of technicians are women, a level that has increased only slightly in recent years.
The NADA study concludes that turnover also is higher among women service employees than among men. The lack of a welcoming environment for women at many dealerships is likely a root cause, according to Jody DeVere, CEO of AskPatty.com, which trains dealerships, including service departments, to attract and sell to women customers.
"There is some hesitation on the part of dealerships to hire females because they feel, rightly so sometimes, that their culture isn't ready for that yet," Ms. DeVere told Fixed Ops Journal.
That can mean male employees will be indifferent or even hostile to women coming into territory that traditionally has been a man's domain. That is still hard for some men to deal with, says DeVere, a co-founder of the Women in Automotive advocacy group.
"The owners, the dealer principal and the managers need to want that," she said. "It cannot be driven from the bottom up. It is driven by the vision and decisions of the leadership, that they not only see the value but they have a plan. It can't be that if it doesn't work in 30 or 90 days, we aren't going to do it anymore."
Some dealerships and dealership groups have succeeded at recruiting women as technicians and for other service department jobs. When the Toronto-based Pfaff Automotive Group launched a "grow your own" apprentice program six years ago, it made attracting women a priority, says Robert Morrison, fixed ops manager at Pfaff Porsche in Vaughan, Ontario.
About 5% of the company's techs and 10% of tech apprentices are women, the group said.
When Pfaff Automotive representatives visit local high schools and colleges, they actively recruit women to participate in co-op programs that enable students to split time between school and working as apprentices in the dealerships' service departments, Mr. Morrison said. The apprentice program is the group's main source of new techs, he added.
Most of the group's larger dealerships now have at least one female technician, he said. The shops have a "professional and welcoming" environment that accommodates women as well as men, he says
"You can't say you're engaged in (recruiting) women if you don't have the facilities for them," Mr. Morrison said.
"You can't have a changing room for the men and not have one for the women as well. You're paying lip service if you don't have a facility that shows a true commitment to being open to women."
Turnover among Pfaff Automotive's technicians is 6% a year, Mr. Morrison said, well below the average for U.S. and Canadian dealerships.
Pfaff operates 17 dealerships in Ontario and British Columbia. About one-third of the company's service advisers are women, he said.
Other dealerships have had similar success stories. Yet there is no large-scale, national push aimed at recruiting women to be dealership techs.
Instead, Ms. DeVere says, Women in Automotive is working with the Tech Force Foundation and other groups to recruit women on a local, personal level.
Adam Robinson, CEO of Hireology Inc., which provides hiring software to more than 3,000 dealerships, said most of today's work force is under 40, and that many younger employees want and expect to work in a diverse environment.
"What we see in today's employees, particularly Generation Z, is that they are much more likely to be interested in working for and staying with an employer who has a formal diversity, equity and inclusion program in place," Mr. Robinson said.
Yet only a minority of dealerships have a defined policy on gender balance and related values, and even fewer have formal programs to achieve these goals, Robinson notes.
When Sherry Schultz joined Walser Automotive Group in Minneapolis last year as chief human resource officer, she found that fewer than 20% of the company's employees were women and that turnover was higher among women than men.
To create a more female-friendly culture, Ms. Schultz started Women of Walser, a resource and networking group that has spread throughout the company's 16 dealerships in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and nine in Wichita, Kan. The group developed a mentorship program to help newly hired employees settle into their jobs. Both initiatives include service employees.
"The automotive industry has historically been plagued with poor representation of women and higher turnover," Ms. Schultz said.
"To attract and retain the best women in the organization, we needed to ensure there was a resource network to help women grow not only competence but confidence."
Women now account for 23% of Walser Automotive's employees, up from 20% a year ago, and turnover is down, Ms. Schultz said. A smaller share — 13% — of service advisers at Walser Automoitve dealerships are women.
The company did not provide a number for service techs.
"While our numbers do show an increase in the percentage of female technicians, it's small and probably not worth highlighting at this point," Dayna Landgrebe, Walser's corporate communications manager, said.
Burden of history
Hireology's Mr. Robinson said rhe difficulty of recruiting female technicians is more of a social issue than an industry one. For decades, he said, high school students — especially women — have been steered toward college instead of vocational jobs.
"Vocational roles are some of the best career opportunities for people who opt not to go to college," Mr. Robinson said. "It's a problem that more girls and young women aren't as interested in these roles.
"That impacts the auto industry in a huge way," he said. "I hesitate to say that's an issue that dealers themselves can address. We as an industry can plant a flag and say, 'Hey, look, this is a real opportunity for people who have a vocational aptitude or interest in developing one. You should check us out.' "
Service technicians typically need years of training and experience to become productive master techs. Service advisers are easier to find and train, and they don't need a mechanical background or thousands of dollars' worth of tools to get started.
Because service customers are just as likely to be female as male, Ms. DeVere said, it's good business to have more women in customer-facing roles, such as advisers.
"People want to shop where they see people like themselves, and they also want to work in an environment where they see that happening," Ms. DeVere added.
Putting women in visible positions also signals to other women that they are welcome not only as customers but as potential employees, she adds.
"The unconscious message is, 'Wow, there are women working here. Maybe I can work at a dealership.' But if you see only men, that would never occur to you," she says.
Woman to woman
Roger Conant, a blogger who has worked as a customer experience and retention manager at dealerships in the Houston area, said he has urged dealers for more than 20 years to adopt female-friendly practices in fixed operations. He said it was obvious to him that many women felt more comfortable talking to another woman when they brought a car in for service.
"Eighty percent of them came in with a look of fear on their face," Mr. Conant says. "They were walking into a man cave."
Female advisers are often better listeners, he said, and tend to focus more on building long-term customer relationships than maximizing revenue from individual service transactions.
"In service, you're going to see those people over and over," Mr. Conant said. "The main thing you hire for is communication skill. (An adviser) will learn the technical part.
"A lot of times, you don't want people who have been steeped in this industry," he said. "It's refreshing to have someone come in from a different industry that was really geared to relationships and to repeat business."